Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, December 20, 2015 St. David’s Episcopal Church, Gales Ferry, CT
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
I am the gardener in our family and charged with making things interesting for my artist-wife Roxanne. That is a tall order at this time of year, because the winter garden seems to be at rest. There is still plenty going on, but most of it is hidden from view under the soil. Root systems continue to grow and absorb nutrients late into the fall, and while they do go dormant in Winter, during mild weather like we’ve been having, roots can and will grow when the ground is not frozen. The worms tend to burrow below the frost line and hibernate, but they have probably been hard at work so far this winter. Leaves and mulch begin to go moldy and start the process of adding another year’s layer of humus to the garden soil. The winter garden can have a lot of surface interest too. The bones of the garden show, and where there are a variety of barks, and shapes, and painterly forms, it can look pretty magical with the frost and under the snow. The winterberries this year are bursting with bright red berries; their color stands in warm contrast with the cool blues of long winter shadows.
In the fall, we tend not to clean up the grasses or the perennial seedheads (which worries some of our more orderly neighbors), so that the interesting shapes remain and the birds can get to the seeds for as long as possible. Large grasses will get bent over under the snow, making holes and niches for the snow elves that almost certainly live somewhere inside. Soon there will be the very first winter flowers... hellebores and witch hazel. So there is action in the winter garden... you just have to look for it.
There is action in Advent too... hidden from view but quietly growing. Of course, our FOCUS is on what lies ahead... Christmas and the birth of Jesus. But part of the surprise of Advent is that Jesus is ALREADY with us, and has been for quite a while. Nobody knew that better than Mary, the one who had a VERY strong sense of his presence in the days before birth. Elizabeth, somewhat farther along than Mary, knew it too according to today’s gospel. Her own son John jumped and kicked at that presence of Jesus. Perhaps that is one of the strong and surprising themes of the Biblical narrative. God seems to have been with us all along... maybe closest to us when the People of Israel were under the most intense suffering... when they were at their weakest.
God was with Abraham and Sarah during all their unsettled travels. God was with Israel in Egypt when they were slaves. God was with them in the 40 years of wondering in the desert ... more intimately perhaps than he was even after they arrived in the Promised Land. During the exile in Babylon, God was with them... in the Book of Ezekiel, the spirit of the Lord, the Shekinah, leaves the temple in Jerusalem, and travels East to be WITH the people, now exiled in Babylon. This is a God who is with the people of God wherever they are and wherever they go... and now, during the season of Advent, God is with them as never before... as a human being... as one of us...within Mary... growing... kicking... preparing... vulnerable ... depending on others ... on Mary... for sustenance... for shelter... for life. The action of Advent seems quiet though; hidden from sight beneath the soil.
The majority of Jesus’ life seems like an Advent time as well. Jesus spent thirty years in Nazareth as a child, as a teen, and as a young adult, right up to his thirties. We are not told anything about his life, except that he seems to have been a pretty precocious child in the temple. What did he do during that time? That’s part of the scandal of incarnation. I say scandal because it suggests that God... Jesus... led a perfectly human life. He probably stubbed his toe as a child, he might have broken an arm as a boy... perhaps he cut himself with a carpenter’s tool... maybe he tended sheep and slept outside, or helped bring in the crops from the field, or had purple feet from stomping grapes. All the gritty day-to-day parts of human life that we experience, he experienced... the joys of growing up, watching neighbors get married and have children... the pain and suffering of neighborly conflict, of illness, of death. The humiliation of Roman oversight... and the hope, shared with his neighbors, that God himself would become King... would rescue them... finally bring an end to the Babylonian exile that seems never to have really ended. When do you suppose Jesus began to think that he himself was destined to be the Messiah? In the womb? At 2? or 12? or 20? The majority of Jesus’ life is hidden from view... nothing was said about it, and yet there was plenty of action there... growing up.... being formed into the Messiah that he would become... developing that singular perspective he had of a world turned upside down; where the mighty are cast down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up.
Today, he still seems hidden from view. Where do we look for Jesus today at St. David’s? Where do we find him? Moses found God in the burning bush and I have to say, I’ve never had a burning-bush experience. It may occur to some ... you might have had that kind of encounter with God, but I haven’t. My experience has been more like Elijah’s... God is not in the earthquake or wind or fire... but in the silence... in the quiet... hidden among things ... I have to look hard to find the divine and even when I think I have had a glimpse, it seems a little sketchy. To me... maybe to you... looking for Jesus is more like looking for action in a winter garden. He is there, active and alive, but hidden.
I want to suggest a few hidden, winterly places where we might find Jesus:
• You might remember one of the evening prayers that goes like this "you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence". Perhaps Jesus is found PRIMARILY in the face of the OTHER. As you look across the entire arc of the Bible... what you see when you squint and look across the whole narrative... is a God who works THROUGH deeply flawed people who are themselves, part of the problem. So look for Jesus there... in other people.
• God seems to work, not just THROUGH people... but ESPECIALLY through WEAKNESS. So we can look for Jesus there. Look for people who others ignore or who would escape your notice if you weren't paying attention to them: cashiers, laborers, street people, those who are recovering alcoholics, the sick, the quiet ones who slip around the margins of people's attention. Look for him also among the people in the places where healing, restoration, reconciliation, and is happening. The beatitudes give us a list of those who are blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace- makers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. Blessing is not just something that lands on people like these and RESTS there... the Kingdom of God flows out to others from the blessed. God is found among the weak and those who need restoration... be open to the possibility that WE are the ones who need that restoration ... who need that blessing that flows through others!
• You might not only look for God in the OTHER and among the WEAK, but also, by putting YOURSELF in NEED of hospitality by such people. This is REALLY hard. Some Atheists suggest that they are just as capable as any of us at doing good (and I believe that), but the Christian challenge, is not just to work FOR people, or even necessarily to work WITH them (far better), but actually to put YOURSELF in NEED among them. Accept the invitation for a cup of tea from the hand of someone else who seems like they might not even have a teacup, take the offer of bread from someone who looks like they really have nothing to give, seek the offer of help from others... whatever it may be... especially from those at the bottom and on the margins. You may see the signs of God's presence in THAT place of vulnerability.
• Another location where Jesus might be found is while reading the Word in the company of others. The Word is powerful... it is ACTIVE in the world and it can ACT on you. Of course, I'm sure you understand that the Word is more than just the words on the page, it is also the Spirit working through those words on you and on others. Jesus might just be found in that action.
• I think I would suggest one other idea. The process of discernment (and there’s a lot of that going on at St. David’s) is never done alone, but always in community with others. The idea of community seems to be at the core of the Christian experience, to the point that I would say that a lone Christian is a contradiction in terms. Finding God is just not a personal problem... it’s a community problem... it’s a St. David’s problem.
God is alive and active in the world, not remote in some distant galaxy far far away, wagging a finger at us from time to time... but HERE... WITH us... manifested in the other... in the weak... in those who give when they have nothing TO give... and powerfully in his Word.
Christianity, isn't fundamentally about morality... it isn’t about "doing the right thing to get to heaven". Christianity, is about learning to see... to see the one who is WITH us... to see Jesus in the face of our neighbor and to help our neighbor to see the Jesus who is in us... to see Jesus in the winter garden... in the Advent that is going on all around us.
Thanks be to God.